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Cure is sought for the current shortage of nurses in US

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(NewsNation) — When asked why she’s one of 15,000 Minnesotan nurses planning to strike, Corinne gives this stat: 39 patients for five nurses. 

That was the ratio she says was in the cardiac unit of Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Minnesota over the weekend — a unit of seriously ill patients where too few nurses or slow response times can literally mean life and death.

“One of those five nurses was the charge nurse, meaning their job is supposed to be coordinating care and not taking on a full patient assignment,” she said during a press conference today. ”The most senior nurse on that unit had only three years of nursing experience.”

The threat of the largest private-sector nurses strike in U.S. history has publicized a message voiced by nurses all over the country: Worker shortages have reached a crisis point, and it’s unsafe for patients. 

A recent national survey found half of nurses are considering leaving the field within the next year. The most common reason was “unsafe staffing” levels. 

Others have left their careers following the RaDonda Vaught trial, saying the industry is villainizing nurses for making mistakes when short-staffed and burnt out, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

And while exacerbated by the pandemic, those in the field have been warning of shortages for years, as the median age of nurses rises while schools are increasingly harder to get into.

What can be done to get — and keep — more nurses in hospitals? It will take a mix of short- and long-term problem-solving, experts say.

Widen the pipeline

One of the best paths to more workers is more students, experts say. Yet tens of thousands of qualified candidates are turned away from nursing programs each year, in part due to a shortage of educators and clinics willing to allow on-the-job training. 

Community colleges partnering with local safety-net hospitals are helping — especially in poorer, rural neighborhoods as well as with communities of color. Take for example the program at the University of New Mexico Taos, a community college serving many Latino and Indigenous students. 

Their two-year program serves as a pipeline to a job at the local Holy Cross Hospital, and educators have adapted everything from the equipment used to curriculum learned to better coordinate with the work conditions at Holy Cross. 

And because graduating nurses are often from the community, it increases the trust patients have for the staff, Taos News reports.

Other schools, like Saint Mary’s College in South Bend Indiana, are creating what’s known as a “direct admit” program, where incoming freshmen are guaranteed a spot upon graduation.

Programs like this help make taking on college loans less risky than traditional programs, as “students want to know when they’re coming out of high school that they’re going to be able to be in the nursing program,” Sarah Gallagher Dvorak, Saint Mary’s director of admissions, told the South Bend Tribune.

The college has seen a 10% increase in applications to the nursing program over the past four years, she said.

Make work visas more accessible

For decades, healthcare and immigration experts alike have been calling for lawmakers to make more work visas available to foreign nurses — a group that could likely fill thousands of slots. 

“We are seeing delays that are greater than we’ve ever seen before,” said Shari Dingle Costantini, a founder of a healthcare staffing firm, adding there is a seven-year backlog of visas.

In two countries, for example, roughly 143,000 Filipinos and 53,000 Chileans are qualified to be registered nurses, the Chicago Sun-Times reports

Yet legislators would need to make the process of obtaining the H1B Visa — which would allow them to legally live and work as nurses in the U.S. — easier and more efficient.

A series of bills have been introduced into Congress this year, including proposals to guarantee placements for foreign workers in the most at-need regions. Another would provide education to hospitals on the qualifications of foreign degree holders. 

Hospitals could also do more, industry experts say, by sponsoring visas, providing extra training and offering relocation pay. 

Be proactive against stress, trauma and burnout

Equally important as getting nurses in the door is keeping them working. One hospital system in Virginia came up with an innovative approach to prevent burnout: place counselors in the hospital who can respond immediately during a crisis — like losing a young patient. 

“Sometimes it’s hard to remember all the people they’ve saved because they’re not seeing that in the moment,” licensed counselor Chad Runyon told NewsNation earlier this year.

When the counselors show up, they give out business cards and put a real face behind the Employee Assistance Program. 

“The way we respond … reaches people that wouldn’t have reached out,” he said.

A swath of research shows healthcare workers are less likely to experience PTSD if they get mental health treatment quickly after a traumatic incident. 

The early results are promising: Carilion Clinic workers reported higher well-being despite pandemic stressors, according to a self-reported annual employee survey.

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